There’s so much to think about when you’re writing – and the exact place you break your paragraphs might seem pretty insignificant. After all, the words are what matters, right?

Well … mostly. But the way you use paragraphs gives your work meaning and effect.

In school, you may well have learnt that each paragraph should explain one idea or point, and that a paragraph should consist of several sentences. That’s a good rule of thumb for academic writing. In less formal fiction and non-fiction, though, paragraphs are often much shorter.

I’m going to run through a couple of great reasons to use short paragraphs: readability and dramatic effect.

#1: Short Paragraphs for Readability (Especially Online)

Shorter paragraphs make it easier for your reader to take in your words – so you’ll find lots of blogs making use of them.

Copyblogger almost always has short, snappy paragraphs, even from their guest posters:

Every writer has a certain time of day that allows for peak creativity.

Some writers love that first cup of Joe in the early morning when everything is quiet and they can focus. Others love late nights when their body is a little tired, but not too tired.

You have a hot-spot. Experiment with working hard at different hours of the day and find it.

Notice when you are most productive and creative throughout the day. Don’t “try” to make time during this period, make time.

(From 6 Ways to Supercharge Your Writing by Karl Staib on Copyblogger)

This is how that passage would look if Karl ran the sentences together into two paragraphs (I’d say that each of these deal with a single idea, though you might disagree):

Every writer has a certain time of day that allows for peak creativity. Some writers love that first cup of Joe in the early morning when everything is quiet and they can focus. Others love late nights when their body is a little tired, but not too tired.

You have a hot-spot. Experiment with working hard at different hours of the day and find it. Notice when you are most productive and creative throughout the day. Don’t “try” to make time during this period, make time.

What difference does that make? How does it “feel” to you to look at the two-paragraph version instead of the four-paragraph version?

I find my eyes getting a bit lost in the packed sentences of the second version, and it’s harder to see the key point, “You have a hot spot. Experiment with working hard at different hours of the day and find it.”

#2: Short Paragraphs for Dramatic Effect

In both fiction and non-fiction, short paragraphs can be used for dramatic effect.

Here’s an example – it’s from a non-fiction piece, but if you didn’t know the context, it could equally well be fiction.

Halfway through class, after practicing numerous holds and releases, we ground fight in partners. I hold back, unaware both of my strength and where my limbs are. Eventually, our instructor, an nth degree blackbelt who competed for Canada at the Olympics, invites me to ground fight.

I’m no longer hesitant; I can’t hurt him.

I wriggle out of holds, attack, writhe, wrestle.

I sweat. Grunt.

I’m not pretty.

And I don’t care.

(Leanne Shirtliffe, On Being a Farm Girl and a Younger Sister, on Ironic Mom)

Two of the paragraphs here are just three words long. They’re punchy and powerful, and they give us a sense of the fast-moving fight that’s taking place. The first paragraph of this section is much longer, and has complex sentences with several clauses.

How would the emphasis change if Leanne had written the piece like this?

Halfway through class, after practicing numerous holds and releases, we ground fight in partners.

I hold back, unaware both of my strength and where my limbs are.

Eventually, our instructor, an nth degree blackbelt who competed for Canada at the Olympics, invites me to ground fight.

I’m no longer hesitant; I can’t hurt him. I wriggle out of holds, attack, writhe, wrestle. I sweat. Grunt. I’m not pretty. And I don’t care.

The focus now (to me, at least) seems to be on the thought process going on initially – the ground fighting with partners, and Leanne’s hesitation.

The “punch” of the story gets lost in the final paragraph, which comes across as rather breathless now that the sentences have all been jammed up together.

Can You Go Too Far with Short Paragraphs?

Yes.

😉

A whole post of one-line paragraphs, or a whole scene in a novel that consists of snappy dialogue, is going to become irritating to read.

Here’s an example of a post that uses short paragraphs effectively.

Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally?

It’s not a question anyone really wants to ask themselves – but it is the most necessary question in professional writing.

And if the quality of writing around the web is any indication, it’s a question very few writers ask themselves.

Most people starting out as professionals will receive the following advice: write. Just write. Keep writing.

I know. I give that advice myself.

(Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally? Taylor Lindstrom, on Men with Pens)

And here’s what it would look like if Taylor had gone a bit too far:

Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally?

It’s not a question anyone really wants to ask themselves.

But it is the most necessary question in professional writing.

And if the quality of writing around the web is any indication, it’s a question very few writers ask themselves.

Most people starting out as professionals will receive the following advice:

Write.

Just write.

Keep writing.

I know.

I give that advice myself.

 

As you can see, to shorten the first paragraph, I had to break it into two sentences – and it doesn’t quite work.

“Write. Just Write. Keep writing.” works okay as three separate paragraphs, but given that this isn’t a core part of Taylor’s point, dividing it up gives it too much focus.

The final two paragraphs don’t really work when they’re split up. “I know” is suddenly orphaned from its context. The whole piece feels choppy.

 

Over to You

So … your turn to play with paragraphs.

Take a piece of your own writing, and copy it into a new document. Try splitting the paragraphs at different points. What effect do you get if you break one paragraph into five? What happens if you merge three paragraphs into one?

If you’d like to take this further, consider how paragraphs work as part of your unique voice and style. Some writers use a lot of short, snappy paragraphs; others write much longer paragraphs that take time to fully explore a particular idea. Which would suit you?

 

Update: I’ve now written a follow-up to this post, Should You Be Writing Shorter Sentences? 

 

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